VICTIMS of crime have been hit with “a body blow” after the overall number of criminal trials taking place during lockdown will be reduced by up to 75 per cent amid fears over the new strain of Covid-19.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) announced that most summary trials will be adjourned or put on hold to try and halt the spread of the new mutated variant of coronavirus – thought to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

The SCTS stressed that all criminal jury trials in the High Court and Sheriff Court will continue, focusing on the most serious cases, where people are in custody and where the nature of the alleged offence, including sexual offences and offences involving domestic abuse and children, demands priority.

The First Minister said the decision was a "proportionate response" to the escalation of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic emerged in Scotland, as of March 2020, there were more than 18,000 outstanding cases awaiting trial across summary and solemn business – a 14 per cent increase from March 2019. 

Eric McQueen, chief executive of the SCTS, told Holyrood’s Justice Committee in August that in terms of sheriff court cases, the backlog had grown to around 27,000 - warning that it will take eight to 10 years to get back to pre-pandemic levels. 

But Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, Liam Kerr, has warned the “news will come as a body blow to crime victims and witnesses”.

READ MORE: Criminal trials cut by 75 per cent amid new Covid variant fears

Mr Kerr added: "No-one disputes that public safety is paramount and these latest delays are due to the new strain of the virus, but that will do little to soften the blow for those affected and left in limbo.

"The SNP government has neglected our criminal justice system for 13 years. We already know there were thousands of delayed court cases before the first pandemic restrictions were introduced last March.

"The SNP have had 10 months to deal with this and they must now work with lawyers, prosecutors, court staff and the judiciary to alleviate the impact of these postponements and find practical and safe ways to ease the logjam.

HeraldScotland: Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson Liam KerrScottish Conservative justice spokesperson Liam Kerr

"It is also vital these postponed cases cannot be quietly abandoned. Doing so would be a betrayal of victims and risk undermining public faith in the justice system."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, Liam McArthur, has also issued a warning about the existing backlog of cases in the courts system.

He said: "While measures to reduce the number of people required to attend court in person are sensible, there was a huge backlog of cases awaiting their day in court well before the pandemic struck.

"When cases take years to go to court, memories falter and victims don't get the closure they need. People are spending long periods in prison awaiting trial.

"Ministers need to work with the courts service to ensure that a robust and properly funded recovery plan is in place to ensure that this backlog is tackled as soon as the public health situation allows."

READ MORE: Courts discuss 'radical options' as they struggle under backlog of criminal cases

Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing, Nicola Sturgeon stressed that from Tuesday “witnesses should assume that they are not due to attend court unless you are contacted by the Crown Office to confirm that the trial is going ahead”.

She added: “In the coming weeks, the courts system will focus on the most serious cases – that means criminal jury trials in the High Court and the Sheriff Court will continue, jurors will attend remote jury centres which have been created to establish a safe environment during the pandemic.

“We believe that these changes represent a proportionate response to the recent increase in transmission and will help to keep people safe from Covid while enabling the most serious criminal and civil business to proceed.”

The First Minister was pressed over the potential impact of the decision on the existing pressures already on courts amid the pandemic and for victims of crime.

HeraldScotland: First Minister Nicola SturgeonFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon

She said: “Clearly that will have implications for the backlog of court work and that will have to be worked through in the months to come.

“This is about trying to keep people as safe from the virus as possible.

“Clearly for any victims of crime whose case is being delayed and adjourned, that is regrettable – but the arrangements allow the most serious cases to proceed and also allow the majority of civil business to proceed.

“Like every other area of disruption to our lives right now, we want this to be as short-lived as possible - but that depends on us getting on keeping this virus under control.”